Which insect species to farm for human food?

Welcome to my third blog post! So far I have got almost 300 different visitors to my site, thank you all for reading and spreading the word. To celebrate this milestone I have got myself a logo and name for the blog. Special thanks for logo for my friend Lasse Ursin, who also provides the cool graphics of this blog post.

Since starting the blog I have completed my internship at Ynsect in France and returned to my native Finland. I have some interesting insect-related projects coming up, but nothing official yet. My thesis work is also moving forward, I think I’m about in the half way now. The title keeps on changing, at the moment it is Risk Management in the Supply Chains of Human food and Animal feed Entomology Farms. One interesting topic I came across with when doing research on insect farming is the reasoning why certain insect are more suitable for farming than others. Here is what I found out.

Which insect species to farm for human food?

There are over six million insect species in the world and over 1000 are used as a food source for humans. There is so much to choose from, so how to find the best options? There are many ways to approach the question, but for this blog I have chosen to take the businessman view and see which species can be farmed effectively and in large scale.

First of all the chosen insect must be phytophagous, meaning that they feed on plant-based food. Entomophagous insects, meaning that they are feeding on other insects, are very hard to farm and make a profit in the same time. This is because even though there have been many attempts, entomophagous insects have not been successfully farmed on factitious prey meaning that to farm them, also the prey insect must be farmed. This leads to a situation where two insects are farmed, but only one can be sold.

lehtikirvapirkko

The second step in the cutting out the options is answering a set of questions. Some of these questions are given in the book Mass Rearing of Beneficial Organisms.

Body size: The insect should have reasonably large body size because the insects that are sold for human food or animal feed are sold in weight (sometimes entomophagous insects that are reared for pest control are sold in numbers). The larger the size the easier they are to control during the rearing process.

Easy to culture: This is something quite obvious, but what makes a species easy to culture? The main reasons making culturing easy are: Available studies on the insect, availability of the insect itself, simple living environment, simple eating habits and low level of manual work on the upkeep of the farms living conditions.

High rate of reproduction: This is one of most important questions and related to the body size point. There is no use of having a species that are large in size if they are very slow breeders. High rate of reproduction gives also security against unexpected rise in mortality rates as the population can regain the required level fast. Also answering to rising market demand is easier.

Not significantly cannibalistic and high tolerance for diseases: Even though the insects must be given an environment that resembles their natural environment, they most likely will be living in more dense populations than in nature. Some insects will react to high density populations by starting to eat each other. This will cause losses to the farmer and fights against the animal welfare (see blog no 1). The dense populations increases also the risk of diseases and for this reason high tolerance is necessary.

Feed conversion ratio and feed: The feed conversion ratio tells how much of feed is needed to gain certain amount of biomass. The lower the ratio is the less feed needs to bought and stored. Unlike the farmed mammals, insects are poikilothermic that means that they are able to use most of their energy for growing, not for heating the body. This gives insects better FCR than cows and pork for example. There are variations between the insects as well, but the FCR of a certain insect depends on what the feed actually is. If the food has high nutrient values, a small amount is enough.

This brings us the last point of possibility to feed on organic waste streams. If the species can be fed on organic waste the cost of production will be reduced, but it brings up multiple questions. Is the waste high and consistent in nutrient values and is it risk free? If the consistency is not guaranteed, the already difficult production planning becomes more complicated because the consumption of feed cannot be forecasted. Already today a lot of waste streams are used in beneficial way, for example for the production of biofuel. How nutritious the waste that is available for free or very cheap actually is when major part of the “good” waste is already used somewhere else? There are few companies doing production on waste streams, would be interesting to hear what they have to say about this!

Few insects that fit the given criteria are house fly, coldling moth, silkworm, mealworm, black soldier fly and house cricket.

Insects and sustainability are not crap.

In my first blog, “Animal welfare in insect farms”, I discussed why insect farming is more sustainable than livestock farming. On 17th of January 2015 an article “Are those edible bugs actually sustainable?” was released on MacLean’s website. In the article, Ben Reade is questioning the sustainability of insect farming, but he is doing it by making statements with no real arguments and cutting corners. The first quote from him in the article is: “Everyone has been making a lot of hype about insects and sustainability and most of that hype is crap.”  Admittedly, the tone of this article is most likely deliberately provocative, maybe to make people like me write about the same subject!  Later on, a chef called Nathan Isberg is also interviewed, but first let’s start by breaking down some of the misconceptions from the article given by Mr Reade:

..“No one spoke about the fact that, in order to ship those insects around the world, they were mostly being bred in Holland and had to be kept at 28° C—and that’s energy-intensive,” says Reade. “And then they were to be freeze-dried, which is just about the most energy-intensive form of preservation on the planet.”

  1. Obviously, when the demand for insect products grows, the insect will be industrially farmed all around the world, not only in Holland where the industry at the moment is booming the most. When looking at the production and logistics of insects, it is relevant to compare it to the substitute. For example, what is the difference in the sustainability of logistics of freeze-dried crickets going from Holland to Brazil compared to Brazilian beef and soya beans coming to Europe? The logistics have very little impact on the total environmental footprint of food; over 90 % comes from the manufacturing.
  1. There are three popular insects farmed at industrial level at the moment. From the three, only the house cricket is associated with high energy consumption related to the heating of its environment. The other two, namely the black soldier fly and mealworm, are farmed in large crowds and as such are heating their environment themselves.
  1. Freeze-drying is associated only with the house cricket, and only if the insects are shipped to customers without processing as a whole. There are already products like protein bars, as mentioned in the article, that are made out of insect flour. The flour is shipped dry and at room temperature. The freeze-drying will not be the most common form of insect product handling. Again, compared to livestock products, the majority of meat products must be moved and stored in cool temperature.

Nathan Isberg, a chef, is also interviewed in the article. He says, among other things:

“Insects are less and less a realistic response to our current agriculture. Reducing protein consumption would be a better answer”

This is a true statement, but the problem here is that the demand of protein is expected to grow, not reduce. The growth is driven by the growing middle class of big countries like China and India. From my perspective there is very little that can be done to change people’s desire for proteins, so the answer is not to hope for and promote less protein consumption, but to provide a new protein source; the insects.

“These crickets you get from farms—they taste like fish because they’re being fed fish food. So you get a cricket, you feed it fish, and you feed the cricket to the fish and you get a fish. That’s the reality.”

Well no, that is not the reality. First of all, crickets are not fed to fish. If a fish farm is using some insects for feed it is the larvae of black soldier fly, not the cricket.  Feeding fish based products to crickets is expensive and cannot be done on a large scale and expected to be profitable. There are multiple better ways of feeding crickets than with fish meal.

Ps. If Mr Isberg’s last comment is really true and there is an insect farm feeding crickets fish meal and a fish farm feeding crickets to fish, please, farmers – do yourselves a favour and contact me! I can give somefree tips to save you a lot of time and money. Or maybe just read a book, like Mass Production of Beneficial Organisms.

Links to the article  “Are those edible bugs actually sustainable?”:

http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/factory-farmed-insect-how-vulgar/

Animal Welfare in Insect Farming

Large-scale industrial insect farming is a relatively new industry and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. There are a few industrial size insect farms starting around the world that are rearing insects, mainly for fish feed, but some products are also popping up little by little for human consumption as well. The human consumption of insects is called entomophagy, not to be confused with entomology, the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects. There are over 1000 different insects species used today as food, but the most common insects being farmed on an industrial scale are the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor), black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and house cricket (Acheta domesticus). Insects are seen as a sustainable substitute, especially for the consumption of livestock. The traditional protein source livestock is not only expensive, but also environmentally unsustainable – compared to an insect or vegetarian diet, meat production is ineffective and uses staggering amounts of water, land and feed. For example, a cow consumes 12 times more resources than crickets that give the comparable nutrition as meat.

To read more about the topic, have a look at FAO’s Edible Insect document available here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

Along with the environmental issues, another ethical concern associated with meat consumption is the main topic of this blog: animal welfare. The basis of animal welfare legislation is the so-called Brambell’s five freedoms model.

The five freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

The basic cause for ethical problems in traditional animal farming is that it is economically beneficial to keep the animals in environments that are not natural for them. For example the unnatural, stressful environment and unnatural density of animals can lead to health issues, but economically it’s cheaper to deal with it by extensive medication than by providing more space.

As it stands today, when high-scale insect farms are emerging, it is economically beneficial for insect farms to respect the five freedoms. According to multiple industrial scale farmers interviewed in the research document “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”, the more the industrial environment resembles the natural environment of the insect, the more productive and healthy the insect will be. There are a few exceptions, however. Some farmers use juvenile hormone to prevent the larvae of Tenebrio molitor from moulting into pupae and later into beetles. Another example is gender ratio manipulation. In order to maximize the breeding activities of the adult insect, the natural ratio of male and female insects is modified. These are two instances where the animals’ right to express their normal behaviour is interfered with. To read more about this topic, you can find the full “A Bug’s Life”-document is available here: http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf

Hypocritical approach on animal rights.

People tend to be hypocritical about animal rights. For example, domestic animals are loved by their owners and a lot of time and effort is put into their wellbeing, because they are considered ‘cute’ and can show affection. Animals like rats do not receive the same degree of compassion, let alone cockroaches or spiders. This fact will affect the public’s view on the growing industry significantly. Even if in the future insect farms would not be able to provide an ethical environment for the insects, the public would not be as concerned with defending, for example, fly larvae in the same way that it is increasingly doing with livestock. Insect farming hasn’t yet reached a scale comparable to livestock farming at this point. It remains to be seen if farms will be able to provide the animals with the five freedoms and how the public will perceive the industry when it grows bigger.

For the last point some food for thought.

The big moral question that the consumer is facing when it comes to entomophagy is: is it morally correct to eat insects and other animals? And if not, can the immorality of eating insects be overlooked for the sake of the greater good?

If carefully controlled, insects can be fed with biological waste streams. This would make insect products clearly the most environmentally sustainable protein source, not only over livestock and fish but also over soya beans. If the carbon footprint of the end product does not count in the production of the insects’ feed (as it is otherwise considered waste), the only environmental impact comes from electricity usage on the farm, packing and transportation. When looking at the issues associated with soya bean farming, not even a full vegan diet gets away with a clear environmental conscience. For this reason, even a consumer who is conscious of the animal rights of insects must consider entomophagy over vegetable based proteins for an even lower environmental impact.

My blog is clearly pro-entomophagy, but an opposite view exists as well. Here is a link to a blog where the author speaks against insect farming for ethical reasons: http://reducing-suffering.org/why-i-dont-support-eating-insects/. The author makes some relevant and respectable points from his ethical point of view, but is guilty of fallacy when referring to “A Bug’s Life” and high mortality rates. Specifically, when the author writes “…in practice, farms don’t want to spend too much effort on maintenance or optimal welfare”, this conclusion has already been overruled by researchers of the “A Bug’s Life” document. According to their knowledge and the multiple farmers they interviewed, it is essential for the success of the farm to put a lot of effort into the maintenance and optimization of the insects’ welfare.

I hope you found my first ever blog interesting to read! As you may have noticed I’ve left out multiple references to make the text easier to read, also for people who are not interested in the topic for purely professional or research reasons. In case you would like to know more, leave a comment. I’ll do my best to answer all the questions!

In Paris 4th January 2015. Ilkka Taponen

Updated 2017- version can be found from my Medium-site: https://medium.com/@itaponen/animal-welfare-in-insect-farming-213a7224ef3d#.n6v9yewbt

Further reading:

For general information on insect farming: FAO’s Edible insects: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

Study on animal welfare in industrial farming: “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”

http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf

About the environmental impacts when using insects of a part of fish feed: Life Cycle Assessment on Icelandic Arctic char fed with three different feed types:

http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/15119/36564/1/Birgir_%C3%96rn_Sm%C3%A1rason.pdf